There are two obvious obstacles to consistent and meaningful devotions that I will mention briefly before moving on: (1) sin and (2) lack of affection
- In prayer, reading, and meditation we make eye-contact with God. And, like a child with his earthly father, when we are in habitual, secret, unrepentant, sin we are loathed to make eye-contact with our heavenly Father. Repent, walk in the light. Draw near to Him and he will draw near to you.
- If you do not truly love God, if your emotions, affections, and joy are not securely engaged and tied up in right fellowship with Him, then not only will your devotions be shallow, rare, and obligatory, you probably aren’t even a Christian.
But those two big things aside, here's my advice to those who struggle with consistency in their devotional lives: arrange your life in a way such that failure in this area has actual consequences. Invite spiritual responsibility on yourself; preempt maturity. Go looking for work to do for God and his Church. Take a wife in marriage and hear her vow to obey and submit to you until one of you dies. Vow, yourself, to lay down your life for her as Christ did for His Church. Have a child. Be to it as your heavenly Father is to you. Then have more. And when they have children, do it all over again and die, as Jacob did, leaning on his staff, and not as the world does, sitting on a remote control. Build relationships of the kind where your spiritual failure will be noticeable to your friends. The great Isaac Stern once said: If I go one day without practicing, I notice; if I go two, the critics notice; if I go three, the world notices. One way to grow in godliness is to situate your life so that it is regularly examined by critics. My dad used to refer to this as a “holy pressure.” Seek it out. Be found by him to be plowing in his fields when he returns.
The blessings attendant to a comprehensively God-saturated life are obvious, since to fail to live a committed and faithful Christian life would result in the loss or harm of every relationship and institution one loves. For those living such a life, the stakes are high. And they should be high.
The complications to such a life, though, are real and deserve some analysis. I will divide them this way:
The level of self-righteousness I experienced just in preparing for this ten minute talk would shock you. Moving on…
If I'm reading my Bible only because I have to prepare for home group or Sunday worship then I'm committing fraud. The external demonstrations of our spirituality always flow downhill from what's happening internally. If your soul is stagnate, if your oblations formulaic, if your engagement with the things of God limited to a glossy corporatized antiseptic emasculated evangelicalism, or your spiritual high-water mark set in the halcyon past you might be able to muscle through a few goodnight prayers to your four year old, but by the time he's four and a half even he'll have figured out your full of it. Your home group will take even less time.
Instead, conduct your private devotions like Shakespeare's Lear on the heath, answering with uncovered body the extremity of the skies, an unaccommodated man, no more than a poor bare forked animal. Remove as many intermediaries as you can between you and God in those first minutes of the day. My morning prayers begin with a petition that goes something like this: “Father, before you now, strip away everything that is superfluous in my life: family, church, friends, everything. It is with you I have to do, not them. Here you find me God, a poor bare forked animal confronting the extremity of your hallowed self. For your name's sake, have mercy on my soul.”
In the great Woody Allen film “Annie Hall”, Woody Allen’s character, Alvy, meets a young woman at a party.
Allison: I'm in the midst of doing my thesis.
Alvy: On what?
Allison: Political commitment in twentieth century literature.
Alvy: You, you, you're like New York, Jewish, left-wing, liberal, intellectual, Central Park West, Brandeis University, the socialist summer camps and the, the father with the Ben Shahn drawings, right, and the really, y'know, strike-oriented kind of, red diaper, stop me before I make a complete imbecile of myself.
Allison: No, that was wonderful. I love being reduced to a cultural stereotype.
Alvy: Right, I'm a bigot, I know, but for the left.
Guess what? Satan’s a bigot for the left, too. And living the kind of comprehensively Christian life that God calls you to will leave you vulnerable to a certain line of attack. Like Alvy, he’ll say, “Oh, the only reason you're like this is because that's your environment, your demographic. You're rewarded with people's good opinion of you, with the water standing in your mother's eyes. You're a white Southern evangelical who was read too much CS Lewis when he was a child. Your wife and kids eat at Chick-fil-A. You're a bad cliché!”
Brothers, we are not a subculture. We are the Church of Christ against which the gates of hell will not prevail. But let me tell you this, you can’t combat the charge that evangelical Christianity is just another subculture by disappearing further into the parts of evangelical Christianity that ARE a subculture. You can't combat that voice by reading the Gospel Coalition or listening to Christian pop music. Your wife can't combat that voice by reading a blog by a sassy homeschooling mother of eight who mixes in devotional thoughts with funny stories about her toddlers. If your source of spiritual nourishment contains anywhere near it a picture of someone with well-coiffed hair lying in meadow, you are going to the wrong place for spiritual nourishment. Beware the peddlers of God’s Word, 2 Corinthians says. For me, Satan's voice of doubt is silenced in one way: on my knees, face against the floor, in the pre-dawn dark, before my coffee has been poured, saying over and over again so I don't fall asleep, “As pants the hart for cooling streams when heated in the chase / so longs my soul for thee oh God and thy refreshing grace.”
Engaging with the things of God in so many different contexts can result in what feels like a complicated faith, when really what we have is just a complicated life. Twenty-six times in the epistles we are told that our faith and doctrine should be things like genuine, sincere, simple, pure, unfeigned, and earnest. Our lives may be pulled in different directions, but our souls never should be. “Do you wish to be wise?” James asks. Then ask it of the God who upbraids you not and he will give you wisdom. But a prerequisite for receiving this wisdom, James also says, is that we be not double-minded, doubtful, or unstable in our ways. Being firm and unchanging in your confession is a precondition for the Godly wisdom required of a man.
Lastly, none of this has anything to do with bourgeoisie self-improvement. It's worship. Your morning Bible reading, the family prayer before dinner, the hymn of consecration you sing over your child’s crib – these aren’t just more good things to do, like cutting back on your screen time. This isn't TED Talk mindfulness; this isn't one of Jordan Peterson's twelve rules. This is soul work. We’re not fasting so that we lose weight. What you do between five and six in the morning reverberates in the corridors of heaven and does not go unseen - either by the great cloud of witnesses or by God himself - for he is the rewarder of them that diligently seek after him. If you or your wife's devotional life looks more like a yoga routine with a Bible than Jacob at Peniel (meaning, a wrestling match) or Jesus in Gethsemane (meaning, submission to your Father’s will though it mean death itself) or Silas in the Philippian jail (meaning stone-cracking hymn singing) then your devotional life needs to change. Not so that you'll be a better person, or even a more devout Christian, but so that your doctrine will be adorned and your God glorified.